THE government seems pretty happy and confident that no referendum will be needed on the so called fiscal compact. Avoiding a referendum solves a lot of problems in the short-term. There remain some risks; with a public showing high levels of support for a referendum Michael D. Higgins may see his presidency defined by the pressure he will feel to refer the matter to the Supreme Court. The public has not seen too much of him and he will be accused of selling his soul for the job if he doesn’t. Right now things might be a lot simpler if Gay Mitchell had become president.
If by some chance a referendum was needed the government faces a problem. It would be far better to call one now than be seen to be forced to call one by the Supreme Court. They know, however, that getting a referendum through would be no easy task. The fiscal compact is not simple; they brought home no goodies to sell it with. Fianna Fail might even be tempted to say the government should have done better and oppose the deal. Now that would be quite a landmark.
If worst came to the worst and a referendum was called the government would need to be very brave if it wants it to get passed. Michael Noonan said some time ago that any referendum would in essence be about our membership of the EU. While not technically incorrect, he had a point. In a referendum a government would need to depart from the Nice and Lisbon formula of ignoring the possibility of losing and passing it off as an unknown. This time the government would need to lay out a plan of exactly what it intends to do if we vote yes and more importantly if we vote no.
If the government believes this deal is necessary for the Euro to survive then, logically the decent thing to do after a no vote would be to leave the Euro. By making that clear they would immediately force the hand of FF to support the deal. They would also focus minds. The next step would be to say that in such an event Ireland would need to consider and debate its future and indeed EU membership and another referendum on that subject would follow a no vote. Very quickly minds would be focussed on where we truly believe Ireland’s future lies. No more ‘I’m pro-European but…’ those that want out of the EU would have an opportunity to clearly lay their case. If the vote is endorsed then the government has a huge and renewed mandate on Ireland’s course for the future.
Of course, it carries a risk, the risk being that the people may say no and you will have to listen and find yourself outside the Euro, maybe even the EU and actively considering default on debt. While some argue that would be a good thing, I can tell you that the very thought of it terrifies any government right out of their senses.
Given that Fine Gael is a pro-European party on principle and ideal rather than like Fianna Fail which was based on practicality, I cannot see them even countenance such a risk and therefore there is a real chance the referendum would be lost because as usual a no vote would be seen to carry no consequence.
This is the reason the text has been pored over in an effort to find the words that avoid a referendum. The short-term gain also carries a price however. Once the government manages to avoid a referendum they will be over the initial hump. They will stick close and survive the attacks. But just like the last government, after the bank guarantee and the EU/IMF deal, the public will feel that they have been forced into another monumental decision with no say. They will be accused of being an elite like the last government avoiding the people and not caring. Any positive in the deal will never be discussed but the negatives of what they have got us into will be thrown out time and time again. They will in short take the blame. They will be told they sold our sovereignty and betrayed the people.
This uses up valuable political capital and when the time comes to introduce a tough decision you find that people have closed their ears to you. The government seems doomed to make the same mistakes as its predecessor and be accused of the same things. If they face the same judgment in another four years, where will we turn then?
Johnny Fallon is a political consultant